If you were looking for the ultimate exemplar of early ’70s soft rock, you could hardly do better than the 1972 song Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) by the largely forgotten 1½-hit wonder Looking Glass.
With its infectious earworm of a melody, its background doo-doo-doos and its goofily heart-on-sleeve lyrics about a fetching barmaid in a harbor town who “loves a man who’s not around,” Brandy has been the go-to selection over the years for many a sozzled Gen-Xer on karaoke night. And there are more than a few fortysomething Brandys walking around today who owe their very name to the song’s brief reign on the Billboard charts.
Brandy is not, however, the kind of song you’d typically think of to put on the soundtrack for a big-budget sci-fi-superhero movie in the year 2017. Unless, of course, you’re James Gunn. And unless the movie is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
In that case, it would be so perfect, you’d build a whole plot point around it.
For Gunn, ’70s AM-radio staples like Brandy, Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling and Rupert Holmes’ Escape (The Pina Colada Song) have been the unlikely secret sauce in the Guardians franchise since its inception. In both the original 2014 Marvel Studios smash and its follow-up, which opens this week, these retro roller-rink hits of yesteryear have given Gunn’s bizarro space opera much of its earthly heart and soul.
“I knew Guardians was a rather outlandish concept — it’s a talking raccoon, a bunch of space aliens, one character who’s from Earth but has been in outer space for nearly 25 years — so I needed a way to ground people emotionally,” said Gunn, who, at 46, grew up with songs like Brandy — which he counts as a personal all-time top-10 favorite — as part of his childhood musical wallpaper. “My thinking was that these AM pop hits would give the audience something they can hold on to that’s very familiar amidst all this strangeness.”
Gunn was clearly on to something. The first Guardians soundtrack — which, according to the film’s conceit, was an “awesome mix” made for the main hero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) by his late mother, Meredith — proved a massive success.
To date, the album has sold more than 1.75 million copies in the United States, with many of those bought by people who weren’t even born until decades after songs like Spirit in the Sky faded from the charts. More than 11,000 copies of the soundtrack have even been sold on cassette tape in stores like Urban Outfitters, ushering in a mini-revival of an analog format that had all but died out in the 1990s.
“The coolest thing that happened out of the first soundtrack was turning these songs by these bands that people had for the most part forgotten on to young kids,” Gunn said. “If you go on iTunes and read the reviews, it’s all young people who say, ‘I wish songs today were like this.’ Today things are much more moody and less song-like, really.”
Some millennials might dismiss this kind of music from the eight-track cartridge era as “dad-rock.” But Gunn, respectfully, begs to differ. “If you think about it, it would be way more like mom-rock,” he says. “I mean, a lot of dads were listening to Led Zeppelin or Cream or whatever at that time. Maybe it’s the feminine side of me, but I like that AM radio pop. People are always saying, ‘Why don’t you put Led Zeppelin in?’ I’m like, ‘That’s not my thing.’ ”
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige credits Gunn, who once sang in a band called the Icons and has composed music for various films, with having an unerring knack for picking just the right song for a given cinematic moment.
“James writes (the songs) into the outlines and scripts and gives us a CD,” Feige said. “In most films, screenwriters will put in songs and they’re almost never the song that ends up in the actual movie. With James, they are always the songs.”
For the sequel, Gunn wanted to take the “awesome mix” idea a step further than in the first film, incorporating songs like Brandy, Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain and Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ Father and Son that wouldn’t just provide a fizzy hit of nostalgia but would resonate on a deeper level with the story’s themes of family and commitment.
“I think Meredith Quill made the first mix for a kid who was 8 years old, and she made the second mix for a kid who was a little older,” said Gunn, who keeps an enormous catalog of songs on his computer that he thinks a feisty, pop-loving ’70s mom like Meredith would have liked.